Terry Andersen seeds about 25 per cent of his 2,700 acres at Anderseed Farms near Bon Accord, Alta., to grass primarily for reclamation. He first planted grass seed in 1992 because he was told that he could make more money with it than with grain. While prices haven’t always been good, Kowalchuk confirms that they’ve been strong of late due to short supply.
Norm Klemmer, with Ag-Vision Seeds, agrees; many of Ag-Vison’s growers have included grass seed in their rotations for over 30 years.
Andersen didn’t get into growing grass seed the way most farmers do. When he started, he was working full time as a production field person for a grass seed company and he didn’t want to be giving advice to producers about growing grass seed when he’d never actually grown any himself. Andersen also appreciates the agronomic benefits including a staggered workload over harvest and an expanded rotation.
By planting grass, growers split up the fall workload since most grasses ripen while cereal grains are still green. Andersen is usually combining grass between the third week of July and the second week of August.
Growing grass seed fits well into the rotation. It helps control diseases such as clubroot because it usually occupies a field for four years — with one idle year to establish the crop and three years of production. If you establish good growth, keep out the weeds and invasives, it might even be longer than four years. Norm Klemmer points out, “Some will last eight or 10 years.” As the stands get older, Andersen observes, “the fields look uglier. They don’t head as good and you get more weedy contaminants, more root rot.”
Grass seed production can improve soil, adding more organic matter. From year to year, the residue has to come off the field because it tends to inhibit the next year’s seed production. Andersen bales it and sells most of it as a low-value feed. After four years, he tills the field under; earlier if there are weed issues. Some farmers burn it off.
First big challenge: weed control
Starting out with grass seed was difficult for Andersen. He thought he had planted his first crop — Canada wild rye — into a weed-free field, but soon couch grass and quack grass were a big problem. That first year, he walked the fields with a backpack, spot spraying the weeds.
Andersen has come to learn that weed control is the biggest challenge when it comes to growing grass seed. He urges farmers to know the crop history of their fields before they plant a perennial grass.
Foxtail barley is the biggest problem for Andersen, followed by quack grass. He doesn’t have a good solution. While it’s possible to spray out the broad leaf weeds, and there are options for some grasses and wild oats, there’s nothing to control foxtail barley and quack grass. Some invasives are taller so they can be wicked out, such as twitch grass and wild foxtail. Some, such as fescue, are Roundup resistant. For some farmers, Terry Kowalchuk points out, wild oats can be a challenge. Diseases aren’t as urgent an issue according to Andersen: “Certainly some grasses get mildew and all grasses get rust but it’s not usually at a level that’s economic to spray.”
Second big challenge: moving grass seed around
Andersen’s first year combining turned out to be difficult. “Canada wild rye is a nasty seed with a really tough awn on it. I had a lot of trouble keeping it in the combine. It wanted to go just right through.”
Some of the bigger market grass seeds are dense and flow just like grain. Many of the seeds that Andersen grows, primarily bromes, are tiny and light and don’t move easily. “They just don’t behave,” says Andersen. For seeding, they have to be blended with fertilizer. During harvest, they plug the combine.
Moving them anywhere — from combine to truck or in and out of the bin — is an issue. Andersen plans much more carefully. “You can’t combine tough and think, ‘I’ll just dump this into the bin and dry it.’ Grass seeds do aerate well but you’ve got to be well set up. You’ve got to plan ahead, get it into that flat-bottom bin with aeration first thing because you don’t want to have to move it around.”
For cleaning, Andersen used to take his seed to a facility about an hour away. When that person retired, and he could find no other facility nearby that cleaned the type and range of grasses that he grew, he set up his own cleaning facility. He chuckles, “These things get forced on you.”
Tips for beginning grass seed growers
- Start with just one thing. You want to go slowly and just do your learning.
- Grow a forage grass first. The forages are more straightforward and reliable, less finicky. The acreage is much bigger and so is the market.
- Pre-select fields carefully. An accurate vision of how the land was managed regarding perennial weeds is crucial.
- Connect with a seed company. First of all, don’t grow grass seed on spec. Identify and secure their market before planting. Second, seed-buying companies that contract production have field agrologists, and Kowalchuk believes they can be a huge resource for growers, offering guidance about growing specific grasses.
- Get good advice for combine settings. New growers risk losing a lot of seed or, conversely, keeping everything thus making the seed harder to handle and causing huge inconvenience and cost if it needs to be shipped somewhere to be cleaned. Guidance from the contract company’s agricultural fieldman to set up the slow speed fan kit is crucial for a successful harvest. Alberta Agriculture also provides detailed information about combining grass seed here on its website.
- Grow enough volume. Klemmer urges farmers to plant “enough seed to make a load out of it. We won’t deal with 200 or 300 bushels.” Small volumes aren’t just a problem for the seed companies, they’re also bad for the grower. Like Andersen says, “You don’t want to be paying to send a part B-Train somewhere.”
- Be patient. Perennial crops are slower to establish; they’re slower to get to market. Andersen warns, “You can’t grow grass seed if you need the cash on October 30th of the year you combine it. It’s a longer-term investment.”